trump getting out of a car
Credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff/flickr

The way the Trump administration is paying for its legal defense seems like an ethical quagmire to me. The big news out right now is focused on payments to lawyers representing Michael Cohen:

The Trump campaign has spent nearly $228,000 to cover some of the legal expenses for President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen, sources familiar with the payments tell ABC News, raising questions about whether the Trump campaign may have violated campaign finance laws.

Federal Election Commission records show three payments made from the Trump campaign to a firm representing Cohen. The “legal consulting” payments were made to McDermott Will and Emery — a law firm where Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan is a partner — between October 2017 and January 2018.

Cohen has said that he did not have a formal role in the Trump campaign, and it is illegal to spend campaign funds for personal use – defined by the FEC as payments for expenses “that would exist irrespective of the candidate’s campaign or responsibilities as a federal officeholder.”

“They’re on shaky legal ground,” said Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause. “It sounds like they are really pushing the envelope … If the campaign were to say they are campaign-related payments, then maybe it’s okay to use campaign funds. But he can’t have it both ways.”

But Cohen is just one piece of this puzzle:

In 2017, the Trump campaign also paid legal fees to the attorneys representing top aides – and family members – tangled in the ongoing Russia probes. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee paid $514,000 in legal fees for Donald Trump Jr, and in January, the Trump campaign paid more than $66,000 to the law firm representing former Trump bodyguard Keith Schiller, who has been a fixture at Trump’s side for decades and served as Trump’s director of Oval Office operations until September.

There’s a sense in which I understand that a campaign should step up and help people who worked on the election team pay for any legal liabilities that came about as a result of their job responsibilities. But we’re primarily talking about people who are potential witnesses against the president. When he pays their legal bills, that gives them an incentive to shade their testimony.

The lawyers and courts can sort out what’s legal and what’s a violation of campaign finance laws, but there’s a bigger ethical issue here.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at